Mat Manning heads out for some nighttime ratting in a pheasant pen where rats have homed in on the gamebirds’ feed.
The Quarry: Brown Rat
This rodent spreads disease by toileting around stored crops, animal feed and drinking troughs. Rats also chew wires and burrow into banks or through walls.
Rats are found in a wide range of habitats. Farms suit them well because they offer plenty of food and shelter.
Rats breed rapidly, so populations can quickly spiral.
My peak ratting season usually starts to tail off as spring unfolds, but that hasn’t been the case at all this year. Seemingly endless wet weather right through the winter pushed a huge influx of rats away from the open countryside and onto places where they could find food and shelter.
The unseasonably mild weather also enabled the rodents to breed successfully right through the year, so I’ve been busier than ever trying to keep their numbers in check.
Most of my winter outings were based on farms, especially on higher ground where rats migrated to avoid the floods. More recently though, I have been focusing on the release pens on a local pheasant shoot.
Anyone who shares their woodland permission with a game shoot will know that pheasant feeders attract squirrels, but stick around until after dusk and you will see that they are also raided by rats when night closes in.
Most of the feeders on the estate where I’m shooting tonight are concentrated around the release pens, but I’m not allowed to target these areas after dark during the game season because the gamekeeper doesn’t want his birds to be disturbed when they’re trying to roost.
It’s a different story at this time of year, and now that the pheasant shooting has wrapped up the keeper is more than happy for me to thin out the rats around the gamebirds’ sanctuaries. It is a fortunate coincidence that as the shoot cuts back on feed through the spring, the remaining feeders are turning into real hotspots.
Tonight I’m shooting a pen for the first time, and the signs are looking good. I checked it out a few days ago while visiting the feeding stations I use to target grey squirrels and there were lots of signs of ratty activity. It’s a clear night, which isn’t ideal because it won’t get really dark, but I’m still expecting to make a good tally by ambushing them with night vision gear.
18:40 – Into the pen
Release pens are real hotspots for woodland wildlife. The presence of pheasant feeders means there is always a ready supply of wheat, and although this food source is intended to stop pheasants from straying it also provides songbirds with vital nourishment to help them through the lean months. Unfortunately, the easy pickings also attract plenty of unwanted guests; in this case, it’s rats.
Having dozens of rats tucking into the pheasant feed can amount to the loss of huge amounts of grain through the year, which can prove very costly for a shoot.
Rats also pose a serious disease risk by urinating and defecating in and around feeders and water troughs – this creates a hazard not only to the pheasants and other animals, but also to the people who work on the shoot. And as the spring nesting season gets underway, rats will turn their attention to the contents of birds’ nests, which offer a protein-rich meal.
The purpose of a release pen is to protect gamebirds from predators such as foxes and stoats, and disturbance around these areas should be kept to a minimum from when birds are released in the summer through to the end of the game shooting season.
Security is all-important, and locked gates and electric fences are the norm. Mat has been given the code for the combination lock so he can access the pen to carry out his vital pest control.
18:50 – Ratty clues
Rather than wandering around and trying to shoot rats as he encounters them, Mat finds it more productive to set up an ambush and target a specific area. For this approach to work, it is vital to choose the right spot, so Mat begins by scouring the pen for signs of recent ratty activity.
There appear to be lots of rats around, and their calling cards are scattered all over the place. Banks and areas around the bases of trees are littered with rat-holes, and well-worn runs lead from where the rodents are nesting to the pheasant feeders where they are gorging at night. There are droppings dotted all around the pen and signs of heavy activity around some stacked pallets.
Mat decides to make a feeder his main target area because that’s where he believes the rats will be heading when the sun goes down. It is very important to set up in a place that offers clear shots, so his next job is to find a spot from which he can ambush rats without trees, fallen branches and undergrowth getting in the way.
Readers will know that I tend to favour classic roundhead ammo for most of my hunting. I believe that the slightest damage can cause pointed pellets to lose their accuracy and I have never been convinced that hollow-point pellets, which can also struggle to group well over longer ranges, really open up and mushroom as their makers imply when fired from a sub-12 ft-lb airgun.
I still stick to those basic guidelines in most cases, but Mike’s experiences with JSB Predator Polymags in his recent accuracy and penetration tests persuaded me to give this unconventional ammo a try.
- JSB Predator Polymogs test – click for full review by Mike Morton
With their hollow-point design and pointed polymer tip, these pellets couldn’t be further from my usual preference, but they group very well with my HW100 K (out to about 25m anyway) and hit like a sledgehammer. I have used them a lot on ratting sessions over the last few months and they have performed brilliantly.
19:05 – Creature comforts
There is no point in making life more difficult than it needs to be, especially when you are shooting in the dark. Mat expects the rats to be fairly confident around the feeder and pallets – especially as they’ve not yet been subjected to any shooting pressure – so he’s setting up quite close to it.
He’s positioned himself so any grain-gobbling rats will only be 15m away. Shooting out to around 20m, he will also be able to cover quite a few of their holes and runs, plus the area where the pallets are stacked.
Comfort is key for this type of shooting, as Mat could be sitting still for as long as three hours. He is wearing plenty of warm clothes and has brought along his usual backpack stool, which serves as a handy seat that keeps him off the ground and away from where the rats have been going about their business.
- Cold weather shooting – here is our full guide on how to do it safely
Mat likes to use his Trigger Stick tripod when shooting rats with night vision. The extra support is very welcome when using heavy NV optics and is a great way to ensure that all shots are on target – he likes to take the rats out with head shots, so accuracy is a top priority.
All that remains is for Mat to load up the magazine of his Weihrauch HW100 and have a quick scan through his ATN X-Sight 4K Pro to ensure that his night vision scope, illuminator and rangefinder are working as they should be.
19:20 – Rats on the move
Mat has not put out any additional baits tonight because he is convinced that the attraction of the pheasant feed will be sufficient to keep the rats still long enough for him to take confident shots. He’s soon proven right when a rat trundles out from the undergrowth and straight across to the feeder.
The infrared illuminator is kept on a low power setting to preserve battery life, but it’s still more than enough to create a bright, sharp image with the X-Sight 4K Pro.
- X-Sight 4K Pro – featured in 2019’s Gear of the Year collection
Magnification is also kept low to assist with fast target acquisition and Mat soon has the first rat of the night in his crosshairs. He touches off the trigger and the pellet hammers home, snuffing out rat number one and getting the night’s tally rolling.
Minutes later, Mat spots more rats on the move, and this time it’s a pair beneath the pallets. Rats absolutely love this kind of cover because they know they are safe from aerial predators such as owls.
The gaps between the slats mean they don’t offer the same level of protection against airgun pellets though, and Mat quickly threads a shot through to snuff out one of the scaly-tails.
Its mate bolts at the sound of the impacting pellet, but it will no doubt venture back out when the lure of the grain becomes too much for it to resist.
20:30 – Hectic action
Night vision shooting in woodland has an atmosphere all of its own, and it’s never quiet. As the light starts to fade the pheasants start to call as they flutter up to their favourite roosting branches. The din of the cackling crows soon follows as the noisy corvids swoop and circle above the treetops before they start settling down for the night.
When darkness comes, rats and mice can be heard squeaking and scratching amongst the undergrowth, and the calls of hunting tawny owls echo around the trees. It is an exhilarating place to be.
Mat doesn’t have a lot of time to dwell on the sounds of the night on this occasion because the rats are coming thick and fast. The moonlight from the clear sky means he’s not as well hidden as he’d like to be, but he’s managed to pick off several rats as they emerge from their burrows and scuttle amongst the pallets, but as expected it is the grain feeder that has produced the bulk of the action, and the area around it is now strewn with the bodies of shot rats.
They’re not letting up yet, and another one soon crawls out to feed. Rather than heading for the grain, this one settles on one of the shot rats and starts lapping at the blood around its head. Mat lines up the crosshairs once again and rolls over another scavenging rodent – the bag is really growing now.
21:50 – Pick up and lock up
However productive a rat shoot is, the time always comes when the action begins to dwindle. It’s inevitable; the simple fact is that each kill results in one less rat to shoot and those that remain will eventually begin to wise-up to the danger and go to ground.
Mat has had almost three hours of consistent shooting when he eventually decides to call it a night. There are still one or two rats around, but the long waits between shots are starting to test his patience and the call of a warm bed has become impossible to resist.
Before he packs up, Mat gathers up all the dead rats, because leaving their corpses in the pen could create a disease risk and attract more scavenging pests. He uses a litter grabber in order to keep his hands well away from the rodents and manages to retrieve 18 – not a bad tally for a few hours’ shooting. The dead rats go into a plastic sack, ready for disposal at the estate’s fire site.
Mat’s final job as he leaves is to close and relock the entrance gate. Being able to shoot inside a release pen is a real privilege and Mat doesn’t want to upset the gamekeeper by leaving the enclosure open to predators and snooping walkers.
GUN: Weihrauch HW100 K (www.hullcartridge.co.uk)
OPTICS: ATN X-SIGHT 4K PRO (www.atneu.com)
AMMO: JSB Polymag Predator Short (www.air-arms.co.uk)
STICKS: Primos Trigger Stick Tripod (www.bisley-uk.com)
JACKET: Ridgeline Monsoon Classic Jacket (www.ridgelineclothing.co.uk)